Noise Hurts

“The doctor stopped asking questions. When he visited, and the mothers lined their children up for inspection, he took Rima’s temperature and measured her height and shone a light in her eyes and made her stick her tongue out. But he didn’t ask about the pain.”

Advertisements

“Noise hurts,” Rima said. But the doctor who came to the refugee camp didn’t believe her. His eyebrows went up and his mouth curled down; then he glanced at her mother as if to say, “Kids. What imaginations they have!”

But she knew it to be true. When the soldiers shot their guns, when the planes dropped their bombs too close, her whole body hurt, and she wanted to curl up into a ball and weep. The doctor asked again, “You mean that the noise was so loud it hurt your ears, or it gave you a headache?”

Rima shook her head. Her head hurt, that was true, but it often hurt. A pounding at the base of her skull, a tightness in the tiny muscles connecting her collarbones to her shoulders, and then the pain would shoot up the muscles of her throat into her jaw, all the way up the left side of her face into her temple. It was the only reason she could come up with to explain the toothaches, because her mother also took her to the dentist who visited the camp, and he said her teeth looked fine to him.

From the dentist’s eyes, soft and pathetic, Rima knew that he believed it was all in her mind. That she’d made up this fantasy like she would have pleaded a stomachache to get out of a test at school.

She missed school.

She and her family had been in the camp since her last birthday, and whenever she asked if there would be school again someday, her mother said they were lucky just to have food and water and a place to sleep, and to stop talking about foolish things. They were lucky to be alive.

Nobody believed Rima about the pain so eventually she stopped talking about it, but she still hurt and it was hard to get out of bed in the morning. “You are a lazy, ungrateful girl,” her mother said, her angry face glaring down from above Rima’s cot, her finger scolding. “You are an embarrassment to all of us.” Then, even though it hurt and getting up too fast made her dizzy, even though her feet shuffled across the dirt floor, not falling right as she put one in front of the other, even though she often dropped pans and glasses and sometimes even food—that earned a very harsh scolding—she got up and she helped.

The doctor stopped asking questions. When he visited, and the mothers lined their children up for inspection, he took Rima’s temperature and measured her height and shone a light in her eyes and made her stick her tongue out. But he didn’t ask about the pain.

More than having to leave her home, more than not being able to go to school, more than even the pain sometimes, Rima hated that nobody believed her. She didn’t have a name for the tightening noose in her stomach, the frozen tears stinging the backs of her eyes, the way her hands often balled into fists, so hard sometimes her fingernails cut her palms. Maybe it was anger. Maybe worse.

One morning her brother Armin came to fetch her. “Mama says get up, lazy bones.”

“Go away.” She turned toward the wall.

“She said now. She said ‘go get your crazy sister out of bed.’”

He grabbed her shoulder, but the knot of the noose slammed home. “I’m not crazy!”

“Lazy bones, crazy bones,” he sang. “Crazy bones, lazy bones, crazy bones, lazy bones…”

“I’m not crazy! Shut up. Shut up!” She turned so fast, pushed him so hard he stumbled backward and fell against the table with such a loud screech and clatter that Rima clutched her head and howled.

When the sharp pain grew quiet, she opened her eyes, and saw the pool of blood soaking into the dirt. “I’m not crazy,” she told his still, silent body. “Shut up.”

First Show

They came for the wine and cheese; they came because she’d begged them. Since the first day Caitlin had picked up a paintbrush, she’d anticipated this day: her first solo show, the opening reception a splash of bright, elegant people gesturing grandly with their plastic wine glasses and claiming the pieces they simply could not live without. Claiming them with red adhesive dots: sold. But as the last of her so-called friends trickled out, the only red she saw was the state of her finances. How much she’d laid out for this show—the framing, the refreshments, even the damn red dots—most of it borrowed, and how much she’d never get back. She might as well have some wine, since she’d already paid for it; nothing worked as well to drown out the voices in her head and the pity in his eyes, if he were still around to have seen this. As she filled a glass to the brim, she thought about Daniel, and wondered if this was why he’d been so adamant about never exhibiting his own work. It was one thing to be paid to paint something, and quite another to bleed your soul onto a canvas, stand by and watch as people pass with barely a nod. You are entertainment. An amusement to fill the awkward space before the dinner reservations, before curtain time. Like window-shopping for shoes.

The gallery manager drifted over, manicured fingers tapping slowly on the white tablecloth, and gave her a condescending little smile. It was an I-told-you-so smile. If her mother had not raised her to be polite and grateful, she might have thrown her wine in his face, but she only tightened her fingers around the plastic stem.

He could have just said nothing. Saying nothing would have gone down better than the excuses he did offer—that maybe she’d priced herself too high for a new artist, and we’re going through a soft market, and it’s a Friday night when so many other, more well-attended events were already scheduled.

Politely she cut him off, mumbling “Thank you for the chance.” She really should be grateful. He didn’t have to make room for her. There were a lot of artists in the city. He’d only done it on the strength of Daniel’s reputation. A student of his must be worthy of a solo show.

Or not.

She returned to the apartment in upper Manhattan she shared with four other women. Still a little woozy from the wine and the shame, she plopped down on the edge of her bed and stared at her most prized possession: the painting he’d left her. It might have been the wine talking, or the humiliation, or the bone-deep fatigue, but idly she wondered what it might be worth.

The voice in her head felt as real as a slap to the face: No. You can’t. You can’t ever. Aside from the memories, it was all she had of him, the only physical, tangible proof that he’d ever existed. She believed in things like life after death, like ghosts, like guardian angels. That he still lived in the brushstrokes, in the nerve endings of her face where he’d almost, almost touched her.

There had to be another way. She called the gallery owner and told his voice mail that it was okay to lower her prices, to whatever he thought they were worth. She could almost see Daniel smiling at her, saying that’s what he’d do. “Besides,” he’d say, “You can always paint more.”

Schadenfreude

I’m going a little dark this week. Sometimes you just have to get these things out of your head. The bunnies and sparkles will return at some point…maybe.

——-

After the doctor asks her question—they only give him female doctors now because of what he did to the male ones—she lets silence seep into the room. He pretends the silence is poison gas. It’s only spreading across the floor now, licking the soles of his laceless shoes, and the young man plays with the silent death like a game. There are so few other amusements here. The cloud can only rise so far before he answers. It snakes up his cuffed ankles and winds around his calves. To his waist and he closes his eyes, imagining the smell of it, the vaporous feathers that rise off the top of the cloud reaching his nose. When it gets to his collarbones, his throat tightens as if two hands are choking him. An oddly exciting sensation. Then he sees the images, the blood.

“Yes,” he says, his voice hoarse and broken. “I’m having the nightmares again. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

The corners of her mouth turn down; she taps her pen against her notepad and makes the usual inquiries—if he’s taking his medication. If he’s taking it on time. If he’s taking the right dosage.

“Yes, to all of it, all right? What do you want from me? These pills. All these pills. All these treatments. All these pointless queries about whether I am doing my self-care and writing in my journal and letting the negative thoughts float by like clouds on a summer afternoon…it’s bullshit. It does nothing. I keep seeing it. Over and over and over.”

Her lips compress. The corners of her eyes pinch. He is making her fearful of him, afraid of what he might do, and he’s enjoying that as well. Back when he was allowed to live at home, Mama explained that long German word to him, said it meant enjoying other people’s pain, and she told him that he mustn’t have those feelings. But how do you control a feeling? If they are, as the doctors keep telling him, these floating, ephemeral things, how can you let it drift from your mind if there is no breeze and it stalls over your head, building and turning gray and swollen?

After a moment, she says, “Is there anything different about the nightmares?”

“No. I still see it. The head. His head. The blood. Like a trophy.”

She leans forward. The expression on her face changes again, to that of someone who cares. He doesn’t know if he can trust it. “Which one?” she says. “The one that was supposed to be a joke?”

“No.” The word is so small he barely recognizes it as his own breath leaving his body. “The other one. The real one. The one the police said I was holding when they found me.”